Last night I was watching the Edmonton Oilers play the Colorado Avalanche, when a particular shift caught my eye. Something called a “Teemu Hartikainen” on the Oilers had the puck behind the Avalanche net, and was protecting it like a basketball player backing an opponent in under the basket, using his body as a shield for the puck. He never got there, and actually, the defender did well to keep the Oilers’ forward “on the paint” as they say, but he and his linemates did spend the majority of the shift in the Avs end. That was likely all they wanted.
For a fourth line player (that’s what he is on the Oil for now, anyway), that is basically the equivalent of hitting a home-run (I guess that makes a goal a grand slam). Your job as a low-liner is essentially to not get scored on, to lay the body, and to play well enough to let the team’s offensive dynamos rest. Fourth liners shoot from long distances and poor angles when given the chance because a shot in their stat column looks good, (…put on a Don Cherry-esque Canadian accent here) and good things happen when you get the puck to the net, boys and girls! Also, coaches like those simple plays from their worker bees.
For a skill player on the bench, watching these successful grinder shifts can bring mixed emotions, because you know what’s coming: reward minutes. Most forwards would rather play until they’re ragged, 20, 22, 25 minutes or whatever, so they can stay in the flow, get more opportunities and never get cold. Because Hartinkainen and his linemates were getting their job done, you know the minutes are about to be spread around like house hockey. It makes sense (to a degree) from a coach’s standpoint, that if your third and fourth line are having success you should play them more, but sometimes they lose track of why those guys are on the fourth line in the first place, and the reality is that they’re meeting awfully low standards to begin with. Most low-liners can’t control the play consistently, and if you over-use them, you will eventually regret it. Yet…it happens.
Last night, the Edmonton Oilers handily controlled the hockey game, sporting leads of 2-0 after the first and 3-0 after the second, so their coach, Ralph Krueger, did the right thing: he spread those minutes. No need to rundown your top guys when you’re up, after all. No player saw single digit ice time, which is pretty incredible, and only two players hit 20 minutes (and barely – Justin Schultz, 20:21, Ladislav Smid, 20:42), which is even more eye-catching. Hartikainen and his crew were around 13-14 minutes each due to the score and their performance (Hartikainen had a little more TOI than Nail Yakupov, in fact, which is odd), and everything went peachy.
That said, this is a point to look out for during this NHL season. Krueger did it right last night because of the circumstance, but I don’t feel like Hartinkainen’s ice would’ve been much different had the score been 2-2-. He was playing well, and getting used. When coach’s see a great shift from the bottom lines, they want to show their whole team that “good ‘ol work ethic will get ‘er done!” and they give them too many minutes. Your best players are considered your best players for a reason, yet in the heat of the battle, some coaches get caught up trying to show their other guys “if you get your job done, you will play.”
That’s not always the best thing.
John Tortorella is notorious for this. “We’re losing, so Marian Gaborik (or whoever) is getting benched,” and he’ll play more plugs. Goal scoring is a unique talent, and you can’t guarantee that over the course of every game opportunities will come, or specifically, that they’ll come early on. You can’t just bench your stars because your team isn’t scoring – their expectations are much higher than that of the grinder, and barring some egregious gaffe, you need to continue to play them.
I’m talking about this, because fans are quick to say “I’m glad our team is playing Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb more (as an example), they’ve been working hard and deserve it,” despite the fact that while it processes fine in their head (hard work yay!) it ignores the fact that it’s not best for the team (god-given talent boo).
So in a situation like Krueger and the Oilers’ last night, I can dig spreading the minutes around. It’s when teams aren’t scoring and they start playing their low-liners more than their struggling skill guys that I get frustrated. Too many hockey coaches operate on the principle of “rewards,” like there’s going to be some Pavlovian response that suddenly makes everyone play well all the time, and they forget that sometimes, just playing your best talents and getting out of the way is their best bet.